Cutting Teen Pregnancy Rate as Simple as A, B, C

Elementary school program that focused on academics led to fewer pregnancies later

MONDAY, May 13, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- A program aimed at improving academic performance and social competency among elementary school students seems to have the added benefit of dramatically reducing teen pregnancies.

Among girls who were in the program, which was conducted in 18 Seattle elementary schools during the 1980s, 38 percent became pregnant before they were 21, compared to 56 percent of those girls from the same schools who did not participate in the program.

The birth rate differed as well: 23 percent among those young women under 21 who'd been in the program, versus 40 percent for girls who hadn't been in the program.

Among the young women and men who were black, and who made up 26 percent of the program's participants, there were also dramatic differences in the levels of sexually transmitted diseases -- 34 percent among those who did not participate in the program and only 7 percent among participants.

Condom use was greater among this group as well, with 79 percent of single blacks who participated in the program reporting they used a condom during their most recent sexual encounter, versus only 36 percent of those blacks who did not participate in the program.

"I was very surprised by the size of these effects, but it seems that by developing a commitment to positive action to succeed in school, the students will be less likely to engage in behavior that will compromise their stake in the future," says J. David Hawkins, director of the University of Washington's Social Development Research Group, which developed the program.

"We never mentioned the 'S' word in the program," he adds.

The results of the program, which was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, appear in tomorrow's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Although the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is the lowest it's been since the 1940s -- at 49.6 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19 -- it's still one of the highest in the world. According to the most recent comparative statistics from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the 1995 teen birth rates for France, Germany and England/Wales were 10, 13.2 and 28.4 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19, respectively. The U.S. rate is closer to that of the Russian Federation, which is 45.6 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19.

School failure is often the first sign of trouble for teens, says Bill Albert, communications director for the non-profit National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

"The common thinking is that a girl drops out of school after she gets pregnant, but the truth is that half of teen mothers drop out of school before they get pregnant," he says.

So, this study is "consistent with a lot of robust research that connects academic failure to teen pregnancy and other risky behavior. And it's unique because it looks at education at a very early age," Albert says.

In the Seattle program, children were drawn from 18 urban schools and divided into three groups. One group received intervention from first through sixth grades, a second group received intervention only in the fifth and sixth grades, and the third was a control group that received no intervention. The study compared the first group and the control group, and consisted of 349 children.

In the first group, researchers started working with first graders, their teachers and parents to increase opportunities for active, positive involvement in school to improve academic performance and social competency, Hawkins says.

Children were taught how to use impulse control, how to avoid aggressive behavior, and how to recognize the feelings of others.

Teachers were given five days of special training each year to learn new ways to improve classroom management and instruction.

One example was to talk to the children about disruptive classroom behavior before it started, Hawkins says.

The children and teacher discussed how none of them liked to be yelled at, and together devised a plan to follow so that the teacher would make a signal, like turning the lights on and off three times, that would mean quiet time. This way, the children became invested in maintaining a calm classroom atmosphere.

Parents who volunteered were given tips on how to improve behavior among their children by complimenting them when they did something good, and not just reprimanding them when they misbehaved. They were also taught how to reduce their children's risk of early alcohol and drug use.

"It's very exciting, because without bringing in lots of specialists, or a whole new curriculum, we can get young people on a different, more positive trajectory of behavior," Hawkins says.

The University of Washington program is now being used in schools around the country.

What To Do: For more information about teen pregnancy, you can visit The Alan Guttmacher Institute. For tips on discussing pregnancy with your teen-ager, go to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

SOURCES: J. David Hawkins, Ph.D., director, University of Washington Social Development Research Group, Seattle; Bill Albert, communications director, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Washington, D.C., May 14, 2002, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
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